Some thoughts after rewatching Snow White…
- It’s self-consciously a “work of art.” From the opening credits to the literary prologue to the beautifully rendered plants and animals, every piece of Snow White emphasizes its prestige, its uniqueness, and its artistry. Consequently, the film has a very relaxed pace: as it tells its simple, well-known story, it always has time to pause for a gorgeous tableau or two featuring iconography right out of a stained glass window.
- It’s also a triumph of animation over writing. Every character is static, and few get anything more than a loosely sketched-out personality. For example, Snow White’s only trait is “effervescence,” and only 3/7 of the dwarfs (Dopey, Doc, and Grumpy) get any distinguishing characteristics beyond their names. The story has no subtlety or surprise to it, the act breaks are explicitly delineated, and the film is clearly feature-length in order to showcase more animation, not to build up narrative momentum.
- It’s full of expressionistic landscapes. When Snow White flees from the huntsman’s abortive murder attempt, the lighting instantly changes from midday to deep night, and she descends into a violent, nightmarish forest complete with an Evil Dead tree. In other words, emotions dictate the weather and scenery. (Similarly, a thunderstorm breaks out immediately after Snow White bites the poisoned apple.) The power of this judiciously applied expressionism is amplified by its contrast with the breathtaking realism that usually defines Snow White’s surroundings.
- The staging of the huntsman’s attempted murder is taken from Sunrise (1927). Beat for beat, it’s identical to the scene in F.W. Murnau’s silent classic where the Man (George O’Brien) attempts to strangle his wife. Both men share the hulking gait, the downcast faces, and the incapacitating self-disgust as soon as they realize that they can’t do it. (Both men are also urged to homicide by sultry femmes fatales.)
- The Queen is scary! She’s also the engine that drives the film’s plot. She’s the film’s only mature, intelligent, or independent character, with a goal (to be “the fairest of them all”) that she pursues to terrifying lengths. As animated here, she gives Snow White’s best “performance,” commanding her huntsman with rigid, cold-eyed intensity. And whereas Snow White’s constant rhyming is gratingly cutesy, the Queen’s rhymes connect her with black magic traditions dating back to Macbeth.
- The slapstick is suited to the film’s style. By which I mean that Snow White’s slapstick (involving mostly Dopey and the other dwarfs) is radically different in nature from, say, the slapstick in an early-to-mid-’30s Fleischer Bros. cartoon. The dwarfs’ slapstick is repetitive without being rhythmic; it’s fixated on the action in itself rather than any sense of cause-and-effect. Fleischer Bros. slapstick, meanwhile, is frenetic, progressive, and transformational. In Snow White, it’s oriented to the quality and content of the image onscreen; in Betty Boop cartoons, it’s about what the image does. This difference is tied into Snow White’s greater length, more relaxed pace, and focus on sheer, overwhelming beauty. (The film is always more invested in causing Stendhal syndrome than in making the audience laugh or cry.)
- The climax is straight out of D.W. Griffith. Once the dwarfs are summoned by Snow White’s animal friends, their ride back to the cabin is intercut in a blatantly melodramatic fashion with Snow White’s gradual decision to bite the apple. The editing rhythm makes it a dead ringer for the “Klan to the rescue!” climax of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, or the tragic “Too late!” that ends Broken Blossoms.
(This is part of “Disney Revisited,” my chronological film-by-film exploration of the Disney animated canon.)